Thursday, August 29, 2019

The Young Victoria: Royal Rebel

It’s not easy being queen. Nor, for that matter, making a film about the not-so-long-ago queen of a nation that’s very much connected to our own history. I became interested in Britain’s Queen Victoria when I recently toured Kensington Palace. No, I wasn’t invited to tea by Harry and Meghan. They do live in Kensington Palace, as do Prince William, Kate, and their brood. (Clearly, it’s a very big palace.) But the historic rooms of this London landmark have now been spruced up for tourists. I learned a lot about the lavish apartments of George II—ladies were admitted to inner-sanctum parties only if their dresses with sufficiently bouffant—and the far more austere ones of William and Mary. But the chief attraction is the childhood rooms of Queen Victoria, the centenary of whose birth is being celebrated this year.

The word “Victorian” is such a part of our language that we rarely stop to think about it. Queen Victoria, in our minds, is a plump old woman in severe black widow’s weeds, forever mourning the death of her consort decades before. We consider her prim to the point of stodginess, burdening her descendants with an obsolete moral code. But, as I learned at Kensington, Victoria was far more complicated than the dour widow we associate with the era that bears her name. Her father, the younger brother of King George IV, died when she was one year old. As her father’s brothers all lacked legitimate heirs (though there were illegitimate offspring aplenty), it quickly became clear that the young Victoria was in line to assume the throne of England. Her mother, a German princess, in tandem with the ambitious, domineering Sir John Conroy, kept her a virtual prisoner at Kensington. She was not allowed playmates or much in the way of intellectual stimulation; she shared a bedroom with her mother and -- when descending the stairs of the palace -- was required (even into her teens) to hold the hand of a lady-in-waiting. Sir John’s goal, if she were crowned before age eighteen, was for her mother to be declared regent, with himself as the power behind the throne.

Fortunately for English history, the elderly and ailing George IV survived until after Victoria had reached her eighteenth birthday. On June 20, 1837, she was awakened with the news that she had become Queen. Finally able to make her wishes known, she banished Conroy, freed herself from her mother’s grip, and started making her own decisions.  Naturally, various factions tried to control her choice of a marriage partner. She was barely eighteen, extremely sheltered, and seemed easy to manipulate. A German branch of her family contrived to introduce her to Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, and she was immediately smitten. Happily, so was he. They corresponded for several years (she even sent him a fetching “secret portrait” of herself with her hair undone and shoulders bare), but she had become savvy enough to postpone matrimony until she was secure on the British throne. Finally she proposed marriage—that’s what queens get to do—and by all accounts their relationship was a constructive and loving one, producing nine children and some valuable social programs.

A 2009 British film, The Young Victoria, stars Emily Blunt as the headstrong and frankly sensuous (and charming) queen. I watched it with pleasure, since it reproduced so much I had learned at Kensington Palace. But IMDB lists multiple complaints of tiny historical inaccuracies, like an incorrect placement of the Order of the Garter.  All those Anglophiles out there should really get a life.

Painted for Albert's Eyes Only

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